Making the world more accessible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing is an ongoing and seemingly never-ending challenge. Both deaf and hearing people are involved in this utopian endeavor. Their ranks include educators, psychologists, scientists, behaviorists, audiologists, and engineers – all of whom rely on input from consumers – deaf and hard of hearing people themselves – to perfect their innovations.

Here at Gallaudet, the Technology Access Program and its predecessors have been a leader in accessible design for over 25 years. The new master’s degree program in accessible human-centered computing will turn out future leaders in this field.

One possibly underutilized modality for access is vibration. Deaf people are intimately familiar with this already through alarm clocks and baby cry signalers. The Theatre Arts program, as early as the 1970s, used balloons to transmit the vibrations of sounds and music on stage. And anyone who attended the RockFests of yore remembers how the bass was ALL THE WAY UP, creating vibrations that could be felt by our (sometimes less than appreciative) neighbors across West Virginia Avenue.

Man with long brown hair and glasses smiles. Behind him is grass and a tree.
Lloyd May will be a visiting scholar at Gallaudet next year. (Photo credit: Joe Brenckle, 2020) Above photo shows the dance floor from “Musical Thinking,” which has haptic motors inside of it, allowing visitors to feel the vibrations of the music. (Photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum/2023)

Enter Lloyd May, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in music technology at Stanford University, who will be presenting his research on Friday, March 8 from noon to 1:30 p.m. in JSAC 101. His focus is promoting the development of vibration art. “The form can be as simple as a box you put your hand on,” he says. It could also be something small, like a buzz from a watch, or something much larger, like a shaking sofa that moves your whole body. It could even be from a stuffed animal that you hug for a jolt. “Imagination is the only limit for these things,” he adds.

From June 2023 to January 2024, the Smithsonian American Art Museum mounted an exhibition, “Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies.” May collaborated with Gallaudet’s Motion Light Lab on supporting accessibility for the exhibition. After studying different ways to administer vibration, and considering each vibration could evoke specific feelings, he helped pair up each sound art piece with a complementary technology. “We created vibration signals that made sure the rhythm and intensity got across,” he explains.

This is work May plans to build on next year while he is a visiting scholar here at Gallaudet. He hopes to encourage interested deaf individuals to explore vibration – or “haptic” – artwork that facilitates interaction with music through touch.

“This isn’t just for artists or tech people. It’s for anyone curious,” May says. During his time here, he will lead workshops on understanding how to navigate available resources and building new tools.

In addition to discussing haptics, he will describe an experimental closed-caption format that would allow people to customize their captions for non-speech information such as music or sound effects. For example, people could choose to have music described in emotional terms (“Happy Upbeat Music”) or categorized by genre (“Pop Music”). He will also talk about Attune, an online music playback system designed for hearing aid and cochlear implant users that allows them to adjust individual instruments to create a mix that is more enjoyable. “They can make the voice louder, or take away piano,” May explains.

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